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Venezuela On the Path Towards Dictatorship

By Alexandra Beech,

In a rather exalted voice, someone called me today from Venezuela to tell me that there’s not going to be a recall referendum against President Chavez. The excuse the electoral authorities are handling is simple. In a handwriting analysis, they claim, similarities surfaced in the shapes of the letters written by those who signed the referendum forms. The implication is that the same people filled out forms for others. In other words, the old battle cry of Fraud.

Is there truth to this new claim? Maybe. During the collection of signatures, some participants may have been aided when filling out their information on the forms (when providing their names and addresses). Those aided then wrote their own signatures and stamped their own fingerprint on the forms.

Is filling out a form for someone illegal? No, as long as the person provides their own signature. According to the norms defined by the National Elections Council on recall referenda, Article 22, No. 2 states that only the signature is required to be a “handwritten original”. Article 29 (No. 3, 4, and 5) states that the signature is not valid: “if it is not handwritten” (No. 3); “If the signature is a product of photocopies or any other means of reproduction.” (No. 4); “If it is determined that more than one signature derives from the same person.” (No. 5); in all else, writes political scientist and elections observer Ismael Perez Vigil, “the norms state that the information must be legible, correct, and that it must correspond with the identification documents and the electoral registry.”

Some local respected analysts expect the National Elections Council to announce by the end of the week or early next week that between 900,000 and 1,000,000 Venezuelans were aided in filling out the forms, making their signatures invalid. They are expected to invalidate enough signatures to keep Chavez in office until 2006, since 2.4 million signatures were required to invoke the recall referendum.

Miriam Kornblith, a respected IESA professor and substitute for the Vice President of the National Elections Council, is outraged by the measure. In a local radio interview, Dr. Kornblith said that she is “stupefied by the irregularities taking place at the electoral body.” She criticized the electoral authorities who have made public statements regarding the so-called “planillas planas”, or forms with similar handwriting. She said that the board members’ decision-making process needs to be questioned. “According to the Law of the National Electoral Board, the electoral authorities have to remain silent when decisions are being made, because left and right, each one has offered his opinion on the subject...which has not been debated, even by the board.”

Kornblith also criticized the electoral authorities for “adding new norms as new circumstances appear.” She said that “the manner in which this board has regulated the referendum process has been to create norms once the results are known. Since it is known how many signatures exist, and that those signatures are all very valid and that there are more than enough to invoke a recall referendum, then they are inventing new norms to annul the signatures.”

Ever hear of improvisational comedy? This is improvisational politics as its worst.

And it’s working. If the CNE decides to invalidate all those signatures, then the opposition would have only five days to prove that they were signed by people intending to invoke a recall referendum. An impossible task. That is exactly what the government has created all along, a labyrinth so complex and confusing that neither Jimmy Carter, nor the Organization of American States, nor six governments, nor anyone else has been able to help resolve it.

Currently, only continued international pressure can ensure that democracy is restored in Venezuela. Venezuelans have marched and protested themselves into a fatigued frenzy. Despite being denied the right to sign abroad, and facing one obstacle after another, the opposition collected more than enough signatures to invoke a recall referendum. If that referendum does not take place, then Venezuela immediately falls in the hands of a dictator.

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